Tony Parsons

Tethered to the small basket of red roses on the kitchen countertop is a red balloon – helium-filled, heart-shaped – with the words ‘I love you’ written across it in silver letters. It’s a cameo of kitsch, a miniature masterpiece of sentimentality, yet it is both as dense and delicate in meaning as a haiku. If you had to summarise Tony Parsons, the best-selling novelist and Mirror columnist, in one symbol, it would be hard to improve on this. He has bought it for Yuriko, his wife, because she has just heard that her mother has cancer. It is mid-morning in Islington. Sunshine stripes the room through a half-open blind. Perhaps on purpose, the balloon has not been hidden from this visitor’s view.
Tony Parsons, who is 47, met Yuriko, a 32-year-old Japanese translator, in a London sushi bar. They married in 1992 and her influence is apparent in the minimalist decor of their house; you pad across its wooden floors in your stockinged feet, after leaving your shoes at the door. It is evident in Parsons’s new novel One for My Baby, too, part of which is set in Hong Kong. Yuriko was also the inspiration for Gina, the wife who walks out on her unfaithful husband Harry, and four-year-old son Pat, in Parsons’s novel Man and Boy (1999). Or at least she inspired Gina’s dialogue. That character was also based on Charlotte, a Dutch women Parsons went out with – until she found out he was also sleeping with her au pair. To add to the confusion between fiction and reality, Harry is based on Parsons himself: Harry has to bring up his four-year-old son on his own, while struggling to come to terms with unemployment and the slow death from cancer of his father. Parsons had to bring up his five-year-old son, Bobby, on his own, after his first wife, the journalist Julie Burchill, left him in 1984. Parsons’s father died from lung cancer in 1987.
‘Nothing has the emotional clout of a true story,’ Parsons says with a nasal, Essex-Cockney accent. ‘So I do harvest my own life a bit, yeah.’ His wide mouth stretches into a grin. ‘I went off the rails when my dad died and I binged on women. Men are like dogs in their sexual promiscuity. I really hurt Charlotte and she was wonderful and beautiful. There are consequences for what you do and I didn’t think about them.’ In his novel, Parsons managed to make both Gina and Harry sympathetic characters and, as a consequence, it became what is known in publishing circles as ‘chick-friendly’ – a useful thing to be, given than women buy two-thirds of all books. But it was also guy-friendly – Jeremy Paxman said it made him cry – as well as middlebrow in tone and style (as one reviewer noted, Parsons combines ‘a broadsheet mind with a tabloid tongue’).
The book became a publishing phenomenon: it spent months on the bestseller list, sold a million copies and was named Book of the Year at this year’s National Book Awards. It was Parson’s fifth novel – the others, potboilers about tennis and pop, stiffed badly – and so, as he puts it, it made him a 25-year overnight success story. We are in the basement of his house now, in the study: shelves of books, a Nordic ski machine, an iMac, kung fu gloves and head shields, a bust of Mao, a piano and, stuck to the wall, at least 50 scrawled upon Post-It notes. Parsons is not a tall man but he is wiry and fit-looking, with Gary Oldman features – lupine, angular – and eyes which he describes as small and squinty. I am in a low armchair, he is in a higher one opposite me, sitting cross-legged: another Orientalism perhaps, master and pupil. One has the impression that even Parsons’s spontaneous acts are premeditated.
He is friendly and polite but also focused and intense. There is a stillness to him, despite what he is about to say. ‘Yeah, I am emotional. I am emotional. Sentimental, you know. But I try to keep a lid on it. I keep a lid on it.’ A conversational tic becomes apparent; he repeats his sentences, as though ruminating on them for his own satisfaction. (The trope is evident in his writing, too – an echo of his hero Hemingway perhaps, or just a bad habit picked up from his red-top journalism.) Surely it’s the sentimentality that sells? ‘It does. I don’t keep a lid on it in my fiction. Readers, women especially, like the relationship between the father and son in Man and Boy. Somebody wrote that it’s very refreshing to see a man call his child “darling”, and I thought, “Why? Is that unusual? Doesn’t everyone call their child ‘darling’?” My son and I have always been, I mean, if we meet each other now we kiss, you know, we kiss each other.’
In some ways, Parsons seems to want to play the unreconstructed male eager to prove his proletarian credentials, in others he wants to be the sensitive New Man in touch with his emotions. Presumably when he wasn’t engaged in bouts of manly wrestling with his father and son he was constantly telling them he loved them? ‘I only did it once with my dad, I only told him through tears when he was dying. You can’t do it in moments of calm and health and tranquillity, you need the crisis to do it. There was kind of an unspoken love between us. I think if we were hugging and weeping over each other every Sunday afternoon, it wouldn’t have worked. I’m all for a bit of manly restraint. I think it gives the moments when you express your emotions more power, more honesty. So I’m all for that, I’m all for that.’
There are black-and-white photographs of his parents around the room: his mother being cheered by colleagues on her final day as a dinner lady, his father in the uniform of a Royal Navy commando. Before becoming a greengrocer and moving from the Old Kent Road to Romford in Essex, his father had been a war hero – he won the Distinguished Service Medal fighting on the island of Elba just after D-Day, and one side of his body was left a mass of scar tissue. ‘Dad didn’t talk about the War,’ Parsons says. ‘He was very much a carpet slippers, Morecombe and Wise, rose garden man. But he was a killer, you know, a trained killer. I do feel that nothing I can do with my life can measure up to what he did in the War, nothing.’
According to its author, Man and Boy had wide appeal because readers saw their own lives in it. ‘They come up to me and say it reminds them of their dad or child, you know, or it made them pick up the phone and call the wife.’ Parsons’s mother died of cancer in 1999. Ever prepared to harvest the details of his life in the name of art, he has fictionalised her death in One for My Baby. He also wrote a column about her in the Mirror the day after she died. The headline was: GOODBYE MUM AND THANKS FOR TEACHING ME THE MEANING OF LOVE. Does he think now that column was a little mawkish? ‘If I had written it today, it would have been different, but it had a great impact at the time. I got literally hundreds of letters. Selfishly, it made things easier for me: a writer makes sense of the world by writing about it. I don’t think it was mawkish and sentimental so much as hysterical with emotion. The iMac was covered in tears when I wrote it.’
When your parents die, Parsons believes, there’s nobody standing between you and the stars. ‘It really does feel as momentous as that. At the risk of sounding like a song from The Lion King, it made me appreciate the cycle of life for the first time. I could see my son getting older, you know, becoming a young man. Suddenly he was six inches taller than me, staying out all night and chasing girls and getting up to God knows what. At the same time, my mum was struggling with a pleural… she had a pleural tumour in the lining of her lung. I could see a parent dying and a child growing and I just felt right in the middle. I felt complete.’
An only child, Tony Parsons describes his relationship with his son Bobby, now 21, as brotherly. ‘We talk about women and drugs but Bobby won’t let me dance in his presence. That would be just too embarrassing for him.’ They also talk about football (Bobby used to play for the Brighton youth team) as well as marriage. ‘Typically for one raised by divorced parents, Bobby is wary of getting married himself, he wants to do it once and once only.’ Parsons would like to have more children, he adds: ‘I didn’t want to while Bobby was growing up because I didn’t want him to think he was second best, you know, from the marriage that didn’t work out. I’m starting to feel quite broody now. I coo over babies in the street.’
After leaving Barstable grammar school in 1972 with five O-levels, Tony Parsons went to work at the Gordon’s Gin distillery in Islington. ‘I hated it,’ he says. ‘I regret not going to university because I think I’d have been able to sleep with a lot of women there, you know. The gin factory was quite barren, crumpet-wise. It’s good for the Tony Parsons brand to be able to say I did that job for four years, but I’d much rather have been jumping on the bones of some sensitive girl from the Shires.’ Hemingway might have approved of the machismo. He would also have been impressed by the fact that, in his spare time, the young Parsons wrote a novel, The Kids. This proved to be a useful calling card when the venerable popular music paper New Musical Express, noticing a shift in taste in 1976, advertised for ‘hip young gunslingers’ – journalists to cover the emerging punk movement. There were 5,000 applicants.
‘Kids was crap, it was juvenilia, but it got me the job on the NME and away from the gin distillery. You had to send a sample of your work and I just chucked in my book. Of course they didn’t even open it. They didn’t even open it.’ The second hip young gunslingers to be hired was  Julie Burchill, a 16-year-old from Bristol. They were given a desk together. In her autobiography, I Knew I Was Right, Burchill describes how, when they first met, Parsons held out his hand to shake. ‘What do you want me to do with that?’ Burchill said, ‘Bite it?’ ‘He looked at me curiously, turned away casually, then turned back, picked me up and sat me high on top of a filing cabinet without drawing breath. I stared at him, amazed. Then we started laughing and didn’t stop for years. I liked Tony Parsons a whole lot. More than I liked anyone in my life. He was bellicose and self-dramatising to a ridiculous extent… He was immaculately working-class, just like me. No room for doubt or insinuations or lower-middle wankiness here… The punk bands hung around him slack-jawed and starry-eyed. The Sex Pistols and the Clash vied for his attention, for his eyes only.’
Heady days. Just as every Liverpudlian aged between 56 and 62 claims to have seen the Beatles perform at the Cavern, so every Londoner aged between 16 and 21 in 1976 supposedly saw the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club. Parsons doesn’t have to exaggerate his claim to musical history. ‘I saw a lot of the Pistols,’ he says. ‘They were my mates really, my drinking companions. I was sort of their ambassador on the Anarchy tour. I was thinking about this the other day when I got caught up in the May Day riots, which weren’t really riots. I just happened to be at King’s Cross when the hippy tribes were gathering first thing in the morning, and I would have cheerfully applauded if the police had cracked open their heads there and then. Then I thought, God, take a look at yourself. We’re two years away from the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, and for the Silver Jubilee I was floating down the Thames with the Sex Pistols, sharing a gramme of amphetamine sulphate with Johnny Rotten; being shoved around by the police. A lot of people got a really good hiding that day on the Thames. A lot of arrests. I thought, how could I have changed sides so completely?’
Perhaps it isn’t so out of character. There has always been a conservative side to Tony Parsons. Promiscuity and puritanism have been the warring hag-riders of his sexuality. In his Mirror columns he is something of a Paul Johnson figure, starting out as a youthful left-winger and ending up on the right; being able to supply fiery indignation and demagoguery on demand. He combines sentimentality about the War with a taste for anarchy, and ruthless ambition with the caution of one who has had to manage his career sensibly because he has the responsibility of bringing up a son on his own. He stopped taking drugs in his mid-twenties, never injected heroin (he had a fear the needle would snap off in his arm), and didn’t enjoy cocaine. ‘Coke was like an old man’s drug, I always preferred speed. I’ve always had like a cold, pragmatic chip in my heart that would prevent me from, you know, going all the way, losing control.’
Also – the ultimate non-punk, conservative gesture – he got married. ‘Julie and I were friends straight away, we slept with each other quite quickly and then we kind of went our separate ways for ages, 18 months, something like that, when I was sleeping with practically everybody.’ He proposed marriage shortly after punching a fellow journalist whom he suspected of sleeping with ‘his’ Julie. She was 18, they had a son and moved to a bungalow in Billericay. One fateful night, Parsons went to give a talk at the University of East Anglia and ended up sleeping with a student. She wrote to Burchill, telling all. Tony remembers Julie receiving the letter, looking up at him and just ‘staring and staring’.
The marriage soon ended. After leaving the NME, the careers of Burchill and Parsons ran on parallel tracks, with each alternately falling behind or steaming ahead of the other. Parsons languished for a long time. ‘The Eighties were tough for me. I really struggled, struggled to pay bills, once ended up in court for non-payment.’ Eventually, having long since shed his bondage trousers for sharp suits, he reinvented himself as a style expert for men’s magazines such as GQ and Arena. By the Nineties he was writing a column for the Daily Telegraph and appearing as a chin-stroking arts pundit on BBC2’s Late Review, a Cockney autodidact on a regular panel that included the journalist Allison Pearson and the poet Tom Paulin. Burchill’s career, meanwhile, flourished in the Eighties. She sold a million copies of her novel Ambition, adopted the ideologically tricky stance of being a Thatcherite Communist, and became one of the highest paid women on Fleet Street. She then fell from grace for a few years, put on weight, did enough cocaine, as she put it, to stun the entire Colombian armed forces, and reinvented herself impressively in a weekly Guardian.
The two have become pantomime media foes. Burchill will sometimes write about Shorty, as she calls her ex-husband, in her column. Example: ‘I bought Man and Boy the other day and can honestly report that it is not in any way autobiographical. The errant mother is slender, beautiful and decent while the long-suffering hero Harry is attractive to women, good in the sack and has all his own hair. So that rules me and Parsons right out.’ Do they really never speak? ‘No,’ Parsons says. ‘We don’t see each other, we don’t see each other. We haven’t done since we split up in 1984. So for me it’s odd that she writes a column, essentially she writes a column about me. She should think about me a little less. People think it was a very bitter divorce. It wasn’t. The bitterness came later. The fact that she had no contact with our son when he was growing up, not even a birthday card, a Christmas card, is to me unforgivable. I will never forgive it. That time can’t be, that time can’t be got back. You can’t recover that time.’
It could be argued that if Parsons hadn’t been unfaithful to Burchill he couldn’t have written the book that has made him a household name, and she wouldn’t have run off and married another man, Cosmo Landesman, before declaring herself bisexual and becoming a professional cynic on the subject of men and marriage. ‘Maybe, yeah, maybe. It hadn’t occurred to me that I was, you know, the cause of her horrific weight. It hadn’t occurred to me. I see it from the perspective of a father and to me it’s not this amusing media feud. I mean, I don’t hate Julie. I just have no respect for her. She’s a cruel, stupid coward. A very low form of life.’ So the animosity isn’t just a media pose? ‘There’s no in-joke. To me it was a cause of hurt and frustration that there was no contact between her and my son when he was growing up. I can’t take her seriously. One minute she’s a lesbian, the next she is heterosexual. It’s just laughable.’ Is there no curiosity left? Wouldn’t he like to meet her just once to talk about the old days? ‘I think she writes about me all the time because it is her way of having a relationship with me. She’s obsessed with me. She’s become my stalker, and makes us seem closer than we are. We haven’t seen each other since 1984. It would be like meeting up with someone from school. We would have nothing to talk about.’
They could discuss his age. Burchill claims he lies about it, that he is really 49. ‘What is the point in lying about his age,’ she wrote in The Spectator last year. ‘After all, Sean Connery is a sex symbol at 78. Mr Parsons with his cheeky grin and interesting hairline shouldn’t be so hard on himself. ‘Well, I’m 47,’ Parsons says flatly. ‘I don’t know why she… She’s kind of a sad human being. I mean, I don’t even recognise her in pictures any more. She was 17 when I met her, she’s whatever she is now, 55 or something. I think it rankles with her that my appearance has hardly changed. That rankles, you know. That fucks her off, I should look older.’
Success, of course, is the most effective form of revenge. Now that Parsons has not only just signed a million-dollar deal in New York for the American paperback rights to Man and Boy, but also the film rights to Miramax for another million, his revenge seems to be taking on a Jacobean complexion. He doesn’t think he is materialistic – he drives an old Audi – but he enjoys being able to afford to turn left when he boards a plane. But success is also realised ambition; so perhaps he felt less motivated when he was writing One for My Baby than he did Man and Boy? ‘It would be ridiculous to expect any other book that I might write to be bigger than Man and Boy. But they’ll spend a fortune on marketing the new one. They’ll be advertising it all over the Tube for months, there will be, like, wall-to-wall, you know, wall-to-wall marketing. When they want a book to be a hit, almost inevitably it is. I’ll be disappointed if it isn’t a number-one best-seller.’
Boris Johnson, a neighbour, persuaded Parsons to share the secret of his success with the readers of The Spectator last year. The author explained that while he was writing Man and Boy, he, his agent and editor had ‘countless discussions about every theme, every chapter, every line. We made sure that each and every scene in the book was played in exactly the right key.’ Fiction by committee? Didn’t he worry that readers would find his candour offputting? ‘The books weren’t written by committee, but I do take good advice wherever I can get it,’ Parsons now says. ‘F Scott Fitzgerald had an editor and Hemingway had an editor and if they weren’t too good to have one then I’m certainly not.’ He wrote four drafts of his latest novel. ‘I went away with Nick Sayers [his editor at HarperCollins] for a weekend and we asked ourselves two questions: is it too much like Man and Boy? Or not enough like it?’
Private Eye recently suggested another reason for Parsons’s success. It described him as ‘the unchallenged heir to Jeffrey Archer as the book world’s most unembarrassable self-promoter’. Does Private Eye have a point? ‘OK, OK. A few years ago I was called a media whore, but I’ve met a few working girls in my life and I’ve never met one of them who says no as often as I do. I’m more a Doris Day figure in the media.’ Nevertheless, the chaste Tony Parsons has an un-Doris-like tendency to talk of himself as a brand and, fraudulent though it may seem for him to keep up his professional Essex Man persona despite spending most of his life working as a media pundit in the metropolis, he does understand the value of having a strong image to market. ‘I don’t know why I never lost my accent,’ he says with a shrug. ‘I remember when I first turned up in Essex from Dagenham as part of the Cockney diaspora, one of my teachers said he’s a bright boy but he sounds like the Artful Dodger, so maybe he should have elocution lessons. My dad just laughed at the idea. He didn’t think I should pretend to be something I’m not.’
The cycle of conversation has brought us back to the subject of his father. Tony Parsons still feels inadequate as a man compared to him, he still craves his father’s approval and he says it takes the gloss off his current success to know that his father isn’t alive to witness it. In Parsons’s bathroom I’d seen a bottle of Old Spice aftershave –  didn’t know they still made that. ‘It’s an old bottle,’ he says. ‘It reminds me of my dad. I often find myself sneaking a sniff of it.


Trevor MacDonald

Does a knighthood compromise your journalistic integrity? Sir Trevor McDonald doesn’t lose sleep over the question. But he does have nightmares that the bongs are beginning on News at Ten and he’s stuck in a taxi, clawing at the seats. Nigel Farndale meets him

THERE’S an impostor in Sir Trevor McDonald’s office at the ITN studios on the Gray’s Inn Road. With his big square specs, short wiry mat of silver hair and slow-breaking, granite smile, he certainly looks like Sir Trevor. But this stranger lacks the calm authority of the newscaster who has presented News at Ten – with one notable hiatus – since 1990.

Sir Trevor McDonald: ‘What I see in the mirror is different, I think, to how viewers see me’

He stammers over certain words, he avoids eye contact, he claims to be a shy, cautious and insecure man who is uneasy about being cast as a national institution. ‘All I do is read the bloody news,’ he says, tapping a pen against his fingers. ‘I know it’s a proper job but, really, people do make too much of it.’ He looks away. ‘I’ve always felt ambivalent about being recognised just for appearing on television. What I see in the mirror is different, I think, to how viewers see me. I don’t identify with that person. I’m not comfortable watching myself. Not my idea of fun.’

In some ways, the insecurity and self-effacement is perverse, because this man has always seemed to play the role of Trevor McDonald so magnificently – avuncular, poetry-quoting, cricket-loving Trinidadian; clubbable bon viveur who drinks good champagne, smokes fine cigars and addresses colleagues as ‘dear boy’. In other respects, Sir Trevor may be right to feel like an impostor. He is a gentle man at the top of a profession which is in thrall to aggressive men (Jeremy Paxman, John Humphrys). And the top is surely where he is: he’s been named Newscaster of the Year three times; he is, surveys consistently show, the newscaster most viewers recognise; and even a spokesman for the BBC, the arch-enemy, grudgingly admitted to me that

Sir Trevor is probably the nation’s favourite newsreader (as well as the most highly paid, having reportedly signed a £2.5-million four-year deal with ITN). His own views on his combative profession are quaint, a reminder that, although he is only 61, he is very much a product of the pre-War school of journalism. ‘We are sometimes too aggressive,’ he says of television interviewers. ‘Politicians don’t get a chance to explain policy properly.’ He sits back in his chair, legs apart, his suit trousers riding up to reveal socks pulled well over his calves. ‘We assume we already know what the policy is and go straight into the attack.’

Although the shelves in his office bulge with volumes of poetry – ‘I wrote poetry as a child but I would never visit the crime of my own poetry on anyone now’ – the personal touches are limited to a novelty wine bottle on his desk (labelled ‘Old Git’); a couple of photographs of his handsome 13-year-old son, Jack, smiling in his school uniform; and, framed and hung on the wall, pictures of Sir Trevor in various guises: as chairman of the Better English Campaign; as a guest on Parkinson; as the subject of a poster celebrating the 30th anniversary of News at Ten. Scrawled on a yellow Post-It note stuck to his computer screen are last night’s viewing figures: ITV’s News at Ten, 6.1 million; BBC Ten O’clock News, 4.6 million.

There is weighty symbolism in this flimsy piece of paper. In March 1999 ITV axed News at Ten to make way for more films and drama. It certainly provoked drama. The channel lost a million viewers and, after much lobbying by politicians on both sides, as well as the threat of action by the Independent Television Commission, in January this year ITV was forced to restore News at Ten to its proper home. By which time, of course, the BBC had scheduled its Nine O’clock News an hour later.

In the six months since they went head-to-head, the combined evening news audience for the two channels has – to the great surprise of media commentators – increased by two million. But there is still ill will. ITN accuses the BBC of patronising its audience, and of being austere. The BBC, meanwhile, accuses News at Ten of dumbing down. Although Trevor McDonald no longer does the ‘And finally’ stories about, for instance, the rabbit who prevented burglars from raiding a pet shop, he does go in for rather a lot of matey, two-way interviews with reporters, which have become known in the industry as ‘Well, Trevors’. Trevor McDonald will cock his head slightly to the left and say, ‘Tell me, Julian. What is the situation in Baghdad?’ and Julian will answer, ‘Well, Trevor. . .’ Trevor will then end with something along the lines of, ‘You take care now, Julian.’

The BBC has also accused ITV of dirty tactics in allowing the popular Who Wants to be a Millionaire? to overrun to 10.05pm, so that viewers miss the start of the BBC news and stick with ITV (except on Fridays, when News at Ten starts at 11pm). Its critics also point out that News at When? is usually on only three nights a week, and then for only around 17 minutes (compared to the BBC’s 32 minutes, five times a week). Alluding to the programme’s lightweight reputation, Rory Bremner has taken to calling it I Feel Like News at Ten Tonite. Trevor McDonald is too tactful to say that he finds the truncated version of the programme frustrating. ‘It’s not what it was, but I do think we are fortunate to have it back at ten o’clock. And it has been extended for the election coverage – for what it is worth, because I do think you can swamp people with too much politics.

But we must remember, ITV is a commercial company. Would I like to do a longer programme? Of course I would. But I’m pretty chipper about the way things are going and I predict we will get more time. I appreciate the News at When? joke – a couple of months ago we were all over the place. But the shake-out is still going on: they know you can’t build up an audience having it one night here and one night there.’

Sir Trevor’s appeal as a newscaster is obvious: if we have to listen to bad news, it is somehow easier to accept it coming from him. He makes us feel a little safer in a volatile world. It’s to do with his kind face, his neutrality, and a voice as reassuringly familiar as the chimes of Big Ben. To what does he attribute his popularity? ‘Oh dear. I hate answering questions like this. I think it’s to do with believability. But if a young presenter asked me how he or she could become more believable to an audience I wouldn’t have a clue what to say. I’m glad people do think of me as believable, though, because there is a mortgage hanging on it.’

Trevor McDonald learnt his trade – and refined his spoken English – by sitting at home in Trinidad listening to the BBC World Service. He would imitate the precise delivery of Richard Dimbleby and the mellifluous cadences of John Arlott. He is hopelessly sentimental about the days of Empire, of notions of fair play and paternalism. For this reason, he is as critical of politicians who try to intimidate broadcasters as he is of aggressive journalists. He recalls overhearing a telephone conversation in which Michael Heseltine attempted to bully the ITN news editor into withdrawing an item unfavourable to the Tory party. The editor stood his ground. ‘I felt proud of him for that. It tends to be the editors rather than the presenters who have to deal with that side of things.’ He smiles slowly. ‘Sadly, I’m out of the magic circle. I wasn’t even bullied by Peter Mandelson last time round! And I tend not to socialise with politicians, in order to remain neutral.’

Really? In 1996 Trevor McDonald was reproached by the Independent Television Commission for being too friendly – the Labour Party preferred the word ‘fawning’ – in an interview with John Major held in the sunlit garden of Number 10. ‘John and I were cricketing buddies long before he was Prime Minister,’ he explains with a sigh. ‘We argued more about the merits of the West Indies and England sides than about politics. It was a soft interview that was meant to run at the end of the programme, but for reasons beyond my control, it was put in at the beginning. It didn’t deserve that editorial prominence.’ Civil fellow that he is, Sir Trevor adds that he is not trying to blame anyone, it was just one of those quick judgement calls you have to make in a newsroom. It does still seem to rankle, though. His credibility as a journalist was compromised by it, and being credible is something he has fought hard for over the years.

He began his career on radio and television in Trinidad. His first boss there, Ken Gordon, a leading figure in the Caribbean media, described the young Trevor as ‘an uncomplaining, dependable team player who spoke in a clipped English accent despite never having been to the United Kingdom’. In 1970, to his great satisfaction, he was hired, aged 30, by the BBC World Service and came to work in London. He moved to ITN in 1973 and, aware that he was the station’s first black reporter, made it a condition of his employment that he was not to be ‘sent to Brixton to do token black stories’. Since then he has been a Northern Ireland correspondent, sports commentator and diplomatic editor. His scoops include the first interview with Nelson Mandela after he was released from prison, an interview with Saddam Hussein shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and a memorable profile of Colonel Gaddafi, in which he spent days chasing across the desert, trying to keep up with the erratic Libyan leader.

While on assignment in Uganda, he was caught filming in the wrong place at the wrong time and was bundled off to prison by a posse of policemen. A passer-by, unaware of his predicament, stopped the car to ask whether he could have the broadcaster’s autograph. ‘I was happy to oblige in exchange for a promise that my admirer would kindly call my producer back at the hotel and alert the British High Commission in Kampala that I would not be back for cocktails.’ The anecdote is pure Evelyn Waugh.

It is mid-afternoon, and Sir Trevor is between meetings about the running order for tonight’s programme. He seems more relaxed and gossipy now, leaning forward and asking questions in a hushed voice about my newspaper colleagues (he writes a weekly poetry column for The Daily Telegraph), and going off on tangents about cricket. (He bowls offbreaks but doesn’t play as much as he would like to: ‘Cricket lasts a long time, and it is not conducive to domestic peace to go off on Sunday mornings with the ITN team.’)

He lives in Richmond with his second wife, Josephine, a former production assistant at ITN, and their son, Jack. The couple married in 1986, after Sir Trevor divorced his first wife, Beryl, to whom he had been married for 20 years, and with whom he has two children, Tim and Jo, both now grown-up. He thinks his children from his first marriage suffered from the fact that he was always at work, ‘trying to find a place in an extremely competitive world’. He is endeavouring to make it up with his third child and always attends school events.

The eldest of three, Trevor McDonald had no such problems with his own parents, Lawson and Geraldine. His father was a self-taught engineer from Grenada who moved to Trinidad to work on an oil refinery. He supplemented his income by raising pigs and mending shoes. The family lived in a small house with cracks in the walls that were covered with newspaper. ‘We were peasant folk, really, no one did anything of note. I had the finest parents in the world, though. I had a jammy ride. We were all great mates. My wife never believes this because so few families are like that. But I do think without my parents’ influence we would have done very little [his brother, who lives in Canada, works in radio, and his sister is a lawyer in Trinidad]. I frequently wonder how much of my career is down to me and how much is down to them.’

At Naparima College, a state school, Trevor McDonald’s nickname was Big Eyes. ‘I was boring and stuffy,’ he recalls. ‘I tended to be bookish and serious.’ He would go to watch cricket matches but then lie down in the long grass on the boundary, burying his head in Dickens, Thackeray or Hazlitt. His mother would recite poetry at meal times. ‘I never had formal voice coaching,’ he recalls, ‘but my mother was a stickler for proper speech. It was all right for my parents to be sloppy, of course, but not their children! My mother had a very Christian view of life. Never speak ill of anyone, if you can’t say anything good about someone, say nothing.’

Although he doesn’t share his parents’ religious zeal, he does think some of their values have remained with him. ‘My morals are as bad as the next person’s, but I do think one should try to have standards in life. One should try to be kind, good and gracious. I tend to be strict with my own children. I’m much more authoritarian than my wife. I think children should work at school. I hope Jack enjoys school, too, but he is not going there just for enjoyment.’

The young Trevor McDonald would be reprimanded by his parents if he didn’t greet his neighbours cheerfully in the street. ‘I had a positive outlook and I don’t think it was just because of the sunshine. In the West Indies people did look out for each other. It sounds almost utopian to talk of it now, but there was a great sense of community. No one was turned away for lunch. There was always enough to go round, and it was a sort of expanded family system.’

How is he regarded there today? ‘News of what one does gets across there pretty quickly and is exaggerated wildly. They have absorbed that North American attitude towards success stories, they love them. People say, “I knew him! I used to see him on the way to school!”‘ Lawson McDonald, he adds, could be rather boastful on the subject of Trevor McDonald, television star. ‘When I went back home, he would stand on the verandah of our house with a glass of the duty-free whisky I had just come off the plane with, and he would signal to passers-by to come in and meet me. I would be horrified by this, terribly embarrassed, and I wish I could have been more gracious. I wish I had found a way of conquering my embarrassment for his sake.’

He thinks that his ancestors were given the surname McDonald by a Scottish plantation owner. ‘My children often get bored by my telling them about their ancestors in the Caribbean,’ he says. In his novel The Enigma of Arrival Sir Trevor’s fellow émigré and knight VS Naipaul wrote that his knowledge of England derived from childhood reading: ‘I had come to London as to a place I knew very well. I found a city that was strange and unknown…’ Trevor McDonald’s experience seems to have been similar, and his obvious affection for English traditions has led some in Britain’s Afro-Caribbean community to dub him ‘Uncle Tom’. When he accepted a knighthood two years ago (he had already been appointed OBE in 1992), his evolution as an establishment flunkey seemed complete. Plenty of broadcasters and journalists have accepted titles in the past – Sir Robin Day, Sir David Frost, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne – but unfortunately for Sir Trevor, he accepted his honour at the same time as the Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow turned his down.

‘I was totally shocked when I was offered the knighthood,’ Sir Trevor recalls. ‘In fact, I was convinced it was a hoax and went two days without telling a soul. I had sympathy with the view that journalists shouldn’t accept honours. If you heard that the government in, say, Uganda had made a senior journalist Grand Order of Uganda you would be suspicious. So why did I accept it? Well, I thought, “This is a great honour for the West Indian community in this country.” I’m not pretending that I didn’t feel proud, too. I called my sister and told her my dilemma. She said, “Don’t even hesitate. You have to accept it.” I convinced myself – and I don’t need to convince Jon Snow – that this has not compromised my journalistic integrity. My great regret was that my father wasn’t around to see me receive it. He would have thought, “Wow, a son of mine has been given a knighthood in England.” I thought of this and said to myself, “Dammit, I’m going to accept it. It is a big leg-up for all those immigrant families who have made the transition. I get letters from people who say, for instance, “I hadn’t thought of a career in journalism until I heard of you.”‘

But if Sir Trevor has become something of a role model for Britain’s black population, he has resisted attempts to cast him as a spokesman on racial issues. ‘When I’m asked to do overtly political things, I have to decline. But I am approached to do talks at a lot of multi-ethnic schools and I usually accept. I remember when two lawyers came back to our school to give a talk, it made a very powerful impression on me. I can see them now. They wore glasses.’

When Trevor McDonald first tasted fame, Lenny Henry included him as a character in his comedy routine: Trevor McDoughnut. Later, Rory Bremner blacked up to impersonate him (Bremner still features McDonald in his routines but no longer feels the need to wear make-up). Gerald Kaufman once said, ‘McDonald’s supreme achievement is that, while everyone of course knows that is he is black, nobody notices the colour of his skin.’ I ask Sir Trevor what he makes of this. ‘I couldn’t have determined that public perception, but it does correspond to my own experience of the world. There are racial problems in the West Indies, but I don’t remember anyone’s colour ever being discussed aggressively in my house. Race simply didn’t matter.’

So when he came to this cold wet island two years after Enoch Powell made his speech about ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’, and at a time when flagrantly racist sitcoms were aired at prime time, didn’t he think he had arrived in a racist country? ‘At first I was surprised that it was made so much of. I could see there were tensions about race, but it took a while for me to understand the politics behind them. I remember before I left Trinidad meeting up with a friend from primary school who said he was going to London; I asked him how he had managed that, and he said, “They sent for me. I’m going to be a bus driver.” I’ve always felt differences over colour are terribly exaggerated. But then I’ve been lucky.’ Pause. ‘Actually, I have become much more aware of my colour lately. It’s probably because of the current debates on race and ethnicity. I think politicians have to be very careful about what they say on the subject of immigration and asylum seekers, as they might appeal to baser instincts which have no place in a progressive, civilised society.’ Stories about racism and brutality – such as the genocide in Rwanda – depress Sir Trevor profoundly. He cries easily over news stories that feature children of his son’s age, and he found it almost impossible to watch the news coverage of the Stephen Lawrence case.

‘Seeing the pain of his parents on television was almost too much to bear. But we have made great strides and, for better or worse, this society is now multi-racial. I think the people who have come here have done a great deal to enrich British society.’ What does he make of Norman Tebbit’s ‘cricket test’? He smiles. ‘I always cheer for the West Indies. But I have followed English cricket for so long, and I know people like Ian Botham, David Gower and Graham Gooch so well, I really glory in England’s success, too.’ Such an ugly question didn’t deserve such a dignified answer. But it seems typical of the man. He once walked out of Noel Edmond’s House Party in disgust when asked to read out a series of messages in regional slang. ‘I don’t do this kind of thing,’ he said. ‘I’m not a comedian.’ But he is good-humoured, in a guileless way.

He is, moreover, an avoider of confrontation. ‘I’d never complain in a restaurant. Wouldn’t demand a refund; I find it undignified. I tend to bottle up anger. I think perhaps sometimes I can be a little too equable.’ He always needs to feel that he is in control of his emotions, he adds, which is why he has always steered clear of drugs. ‘Someone offered me a line of coke in America once, and I asked him what it would do. I was told it would keep me awake. Well that, I thought, is the last thing I need.’ He doesn’t always sleep well, it seems, and has occasional anxiety dreams that the bongs are beginning on News at Ten and he’s stuck in the back of a taxi, clawing at the seats.

It won’t be long now before the bongs are sounding for tonight’s programme. So – or should that be ‘And finally’ – what about that ‘tache? Is it just my imagination, or is it getting smaller? Sir Trevor grins and puts a hand on my shoulder. ‘I have taken to clipping it myself lately. This leads to battles with my hairdresser who says any clipping that needs to be done should be done by him.’

Tap papers on desk. Tilt head to one side. Goodnight.